Abingdon’s dynamic Duo MG’s racing success attracted even the great Nuvolari, says Simon Charlesworth as he recreates a titanic battle between J4 and K3. Photography Tony Baker.
MG’s pre-war rivals Can a K3 outpace the fearsome J4?
I[/dropcap]n its build-up to the RAC’s 1933 Tourist Trophy Race, Motor Sport excitedly announced: ‘A last-minute event of outstanding importance has been the nomination of famous Italian driver, Tazio Nuvolari, to pilot the MG Magnette entered by Whitney Straight. This is the first time that the Italian ace has ever driven a British car in a road-race.’
Yet the pairing of arguably the period’s finest driver with the greatest model from the most successful British works team was surely a foregone conclusion. The K3 Magnette’s 1933 highlights included wins at Donington Park’s inaugural race meeting, the BRDC 500-Mile Race at Brooklands and, most famously of all, it won the 1100cc category and the team prize on the Mille Miglia – the first foreign machine to do so – setting new class records along the way.
To many TT observers, car number 17 in Class Seven was not so much an entrant, more a winning machine with ‘cert’ writ large over every nut and bolt. To many, perhaps, but not HC ‘Hammie’ Hamilton, who was competing in a Class Eight MG J4 Midget. Frequently overlooked outside VSCC and MG Triple-M circles, Hamilton was the firebrand who tamed the diminutive and difficult-to-drive J4.
Today, thanks to the generosity of MG enthusiast Howard Maguire, we have representatives of both Triple-M machines. Scarce – one of 33 – and prized though the K3 is, the J4 is the rarer machine, with only nine built. Six are thought to survive. The featured car is the only one to retain its original Power plus supercharger. While admiring this pair, it is hard not to recall that gigantic 1933 tussle.
The Ulster TT was a handicap 478-mile road race held on 2 September, with the 31 entrants tearing off around the Ards circuit from a staggered start. First off, with a three-lap lead, was Class Eight (500-750cc), largely consisting of Midgets plus two Morris Minor Sullivan Specials. Then off went the Magnettes and Rileys of Class Seven (1100-1500cc) with a one lap headstart. The rest of the starters (up to 2000cc) were separated by seconds, while the larger Alfa Romeos and solitary Maserati of Class Four (2-3000cc) and the Class Three (3-5000cc) Invictas started on scratch.
Nuvolari flew away from his class but Hamilton’s race pace – first noted during practice and which had startled the Italian maestro – proved too great. Come the end of the first hour, it was the J4 driver who was still leading.
Two and a half hours into the TT, Nuvolari pitted for 3 mins 9 secs with Hamilton still 10 secs ahead. This only encouraged the latter to go harder and faster – breaking the class lap record. By the time it was his turn to pit, half an hour later, he had a lead of 6 mins.
Sadly, while Nuvolari’s stop underlined his professionalism, Hamilton’s became a comedy of errors lasting 7 mins 15secs. Whereas Nuvolari had changed tyres, refuelled, checked fluids and even had a bite to eat, Hamilton’s mechanic – a family friend – became increasingly flustered by his driver’s red mist and blue vocabulary. He fumbled with a threaded jack, spilt fuel, the car initially wouldn’t start, he set fire to his gloves and even left the bonnet open. Thus started a maniacal duel to the end.
Nuvolari knew that Hamilton could catch him, so he incrementally increased his lap speed from 78mph to 81.42mph. Hamilton countered with a lap of 77.2mph but then he discovered his reserve tank’s pump wouldn’t work and he had to pit for more fuel, costing him 20 secs. Hamilton was denied his Hollywood ending and Nuvolari would win the TT by just 40 secs. It was close, but such is the difference between raw speed and greatness – before the meeting, Nuvolari had not even so much as sat in a K3.
Unfortunately for one J4, its 1933 TT lasted roughly 10 minutes before driver Luis Fontes over-revved the engine and fractured a conrod. That car was J4005, which is standing in front of me next to K3016, a K3 that competed in the hands of ER Hall on the 1934Mille Miglia until it retired with core-plug failure. Spotters will notice that the main difference between K3s running in the 1933 TT and the 1934Mille Miglia – aside from the former being stripped of all road trim – is this car’s underslung exhaust as opposed to a system mounted on the nearside. Tempting though it is to regard the J4as the spiciest of the J-type clan, its lineage comes from a different branch of the Midget family tree. While the J1, J2 and J3 were roadgoing cars – intended to supersede the likes of the M-type and D-type – the J4was a racer designed to replace the C-type and developed from EX120, the first Class H (sub-750cc) car to crack 100mph.
Also announced in 1932 were the K-type Magnettes. Although initially bearing a smaller engine (1087cc) than the 1271cc F-type Magna – but not the concurrent 1087cc L-type – these cars had a larger chassis. The K1 tourer and K2 sports may not have been a huge success for MG, but the range’s supercharged competition model – a Class G (751-1100cc) contender that gleaned much from the C-type – more than compensated. Whereas the J4was regarded as a handful and susceptible to rolling (which is why only nine were built), the K3 is still the most successful MG in terms of competition results.
Marque founder Cecil Kimber and chief designer and engineer HN Charles didn’t merely create extremely effective road-racing and record-breaking machines – there are few things prettier than a slab-tanked K3. In essence a large early-spec J2, the K3’s proportions – the slight, functional bodywork, its tough stance – and impeccable details are a captivating blend of aesthetic mastery and Anglo-Saxon mesh-covered, grab-handled functionalism. Then, just as you’re getting all gooey-eyed and waving in the breeze, K3016’s enviable patina, swathed in a gentle breath of Castrol R, knocks the admirer headlong. What you are experiencing is a rarity: a beauty that isn’t trying too hard.
Step into the K3 and it’s a comfortable fit. Switches thrown and starter stabbed. Rev it for some temperature. Gadzooks! The light throttle is so sensitive that even when wearing silly shoes with fag-paper soles it’s initially difficult to modulate the revs of that blown ‘six’. Engage first, release the clutch, calibrate grey matter to ‘preselector mode’, select second gear, build the revs and dip the pedal when that ratio is needed.
Before it is possible to start evaluating the K3, it almost seems that it is evaluating me – much in the way that a shark does. Such is the chassis flex rippling through the car, it feels as if I’m being ‘mouthed’ by the moving side of the body. I hope it finds my mettle sufficient.
The throttle contrasts against a manly clutch and – praise be! – hydraulic drum brakes in place of the cable-operated originals. Much of the smooth, deep sound from the little ‘six’ is pumped out via the exhaust, and it’s so wickedly rich that it must be bad for the cholesterol levels of anyone following. The Marshall-supercharged, overhead-cam engine’s roots can be traced to the C-type, via EX120, the M-type and the Morris Minor. It came into William Morris’ ownership following his 1927 acquisition of Wolseley Motors, which had undertaken contract assembly of the Hispano-Suiza Type W4Aaero engine during WW1.
In a 1930s context, the ride and handling are exemplary. The steering is positive, swift and predictable, turn-in is eager and the ride connecting but not jarring. The K3’s straight-line stability is free from dithering and bump-steer, too – assisted by its racing split track-rod – so you meld into enjoying the experience. As a result, your right foot stretches further and for longer while the left one pumps through the gearbox.
Accurate performance figures for this period are scarce, but following a drive in Captain George Eyston’s K3 at Brooklands, ‘Sammy’ Davis of The Autocar managed a 0-75mphsprint in 14.6 secs before concluding: ‘It is the sort of car which one would like in a long race most of all… it is a car the joy of possessing which is great.’ Now for the transition from K3 to the dainty, almost insect-like J4. Thankfully the axle-grease and shoe-horn are not required, although my right foot only just squeaks past the brake pedal to make contact with the miniscule throttle. I feel a sense of trepidation given the reputation of this mad little machine.
The 746cc engine is comparatively sweeter and less coarse than a J2’s ‘bent-wire’ two-bearing- crank 847cc powerplant, due to the J4’s fully counterbalanced crank and shorter 73mm (versus 83mm) stroke. The shift layout of the gearbox is markedly different, too. It’s as if the mirrored H-pattern of the J2’s ENV ‘crash’ four-speeder has been rotated through 180º. Bothof which are trifling comments in relation to the ‘joy’ of cable-operated drums. A tip from Maguire – if slowing is urgent, use the fly-off handbrake for greater leverage.
The gearchange becomes second nature surprisingly quickly, even if properly executed heel-and-toe downchanges take a little longer. Those 12in drums pack all the stopping power of a soft summer breeze, so you learn to dab on the handbrake before taking to the pedals.
If the unerring gearchange, with its exposed gate and unsprung lever, is sharp, light and fluid then it serves only as an amuse-bouche for what follows. The steering is uncannily direct. Where many cars demand around a quarter of a turn to deal with a bend, the J4 does so with an eighth; it changes direction with all the deftness of a ray of light bouncing off a mirror. The ride is firm – adding further intensity – and the chassis vastly more rigid than the K3’s. Throw crumbly road surfaces into the situation and such is the concentration required that my stare almost burns a hole into the view ahead.
The magic figure for the full dose of boost from the Powerplus No 7 supercharger is 5500rpm, but so acute is the building frenzy of acceleration around 4000rpm that I have to lift off the throttle. Coping with the excitable J4 is like attempting a quadratic equation while sparring with Mike Tyson. It’s overpowering. The unforgiving ride, swift steering, nervy feline responses and a blatting engine shouting at my left ear through a fishtail exhaust are all too much for my exhausted adrenalin gland, glowing knuckles and organ-stop eyes.
The traffic is busier and my tuned buttocks – when they are not airborne – are aware of the J4’s limitations as it bucks, bickers and hops over surface imperfections that the K3 didn’t even register. Pulling over may be an irksome victory for discretion, but I’m fried – and at least I know that it prevents me from having a spectacular Formby-esque whoopsy and therefore being the last person to pilot this final factory-spec J4. If driving a J2 can be likened to a tug of poitín, then the over-engined J4 is an evening with absinthe.
Comparing notes with Maguire, he says: “I’ve certainly seen 12psi of boost and I’m not sure whether I saw 14 because when you’re revving it that hard – at 5500rpm – you tend to be looking at the road not the instruments. Of course, on a track it’s a lot easier – but yes, it comes alive. It’s like a banshee, it starts to wail and it loses that very coarse four-cylinder note at low revs. It starts to shriek and it flies.
“They’re not for the faint-hearted or the hamfisted. They’re for the Hammie Hamiltons!” I wouldn’t just love to have another go, I need to have another go in a J4 in a more contained environment because today has allowed me to just faintly stroke the surface of Hamilton’s TT achievement and I would treasure the chance to place at least one digit squarely on the little J4’s berserk performance.
Yes, the beautiful K3 retains its place at number one in Charlesworth’s pre-war affections for it is quick, progressive, comfortable and more polished than its sibling. Yet my admiration for Hamilton has never been stronger.
For him to have come so close to beating a K3-mounted Nuvolari in this unhinged little beast is almost beyond belief.
“I know it’s work for you,” says Maguire as we stand beside this pair of Triple-M stars, “but what a way to spend the day.” Such is the privilege of this job that this remark has been made before. Today, however, was the first time I genuinely forgot that I was on the clock.
Thanks to Howard Maguire and George Eagle at the Triple-M Register (www.triple-mregister.org)
‘HAMILTON’S MECHANIC BECAME IN CREASINGLY FRUSTRATED BY HIS DRIVER’S RED MIST’
‘IF SLOWING IS URGENT, YOU CAN USE THE J4’S FLY-OFF HANDBRAKE FOR MORE LEVERAGE’